Allan C. Hutchinson


On his book Is Eating People Wrong? Great Legal Cases and How They Shaped the World

Cover Interview of May 23, 2011

A close-up

The book’s title is drawn from a late nineteenth century case—which is also the focus of the second chapter.

Four men were shipwrecked in the mid-Atlantic.  After over three weeks at sea with little food or water, the captain killed the cabin-boy who was the closest to dying.  The three managed to survive by eating him and drinking his blood.  When they were rescued, the three survivors told the authorities what they had done.  Thinking that they had acted properly and in line with the law and lore of the sea, they had even brought the remains of their half-eaten colleague back to England for a decent burial.  The authorities thought otherwise and two of them were charged with murder.

In the legal shenanigans and convolutions that followed, the judges grappled with what the requirements were for murder, particularly whether there was a defense of “necessity.”  After many twists and turns, the men were convicted, but their punishment was commuted after wide public protest to six months in prison.  The case still forms the basis of the common law and still challenges lawyers, old and new, to reflect on the appropriate basis for criminal conviction and punishment.

This case is typical of the common law’s development.  A discrete incident—buying a drink with a foreign object in it, chasing a fox, or couriering a broken machine part—gives rise to a legal precedent that becomes one of the long-term building blocks of modern law.  And other more portentous happenings—challenging segregated schooling, fighting religious persecution, and defending suspects’ rights—have set the law on courses that still shape contemporary thinking both in and outside law today.